Hay Festival Panel Ponders Our Digital Future

In Feature Articles by Tolu Ogunlesi

by Tolu Ogunlesi

Map of Hay on WyeHAY-ON-WYE, WALES: While many in the publishing industry were in New York last week for BookExpo America, other book lovers gathered on the Welsh border for the annual literary extravaganza known as the Guardian Hay Festival. This year, amid the author presentations featuring figures as diverse as Desmond Tutu and Stephen Fry, a publishing panel entitled “Brave New World – Rights and Wrongs in the Digital Future” considered the question of what our reading future might look like.

Tom Berwick, CEO of Creative and Cultural Skills, served as moderator and opened the discussion by asking each panelist to share their vision of publishing’s “digital revolution”.

Jamie Byng, Managing Director of Canongate, the Scottish independent publishing house (winner earlier this week of Publisher of the Year award at the British Book Industry Awards) was cautious in his evaluation. “It means a lot of different things; both positive and potentially negative,” he said. Byng would later go on to expand on his reservations – arguing that the publishing industry is “a precariously balanced one” and that culture is not necessarily created by the kind of conditions associated with a free market”.

As might be expected, participants from Sony and Google offered slightly more upbeat perspectives. Steve Haber, President of Digital Reading for Sony –which Berwick described as being “to the publishing industry what Apple was to the music industry” — in reference to his company’s e-book reader, spoke of “paradigm shifts” and of creating “a whole new experience for readers.”

Jessica Powell, Google’s head of product Communication for Europe, Middle East and Africa, spoke about “access”, which she defined as “more books for more people in more places.”

It is this inevitable collision of Google’s “access” and Sony’s “new [reader] experience” on the one hand, with publishers’ desires to derive profits from their (increasingly undervalued) content that accounts for the tensions currently associated with any mention of the digital future. This much is clear: Whatever the controversies, all concerned parties are eager to capitalize on the revolution, even as they struggle to understand it.

Even Byng, despite his reservations, conceded that Canongate, which started selling e-books in the autumn of 2008, already has plans to digitize its entire backlist.

The fourth panelist, chief executive of literary agency Peters Fraser & Dunlop (PFD) Caroline Michel went on to narrate the story of “A Lion Called Christian,” which this April became a bestseller on three continents more than thirty years after it was first published. The story is now famous: the book came back to life after someone posted a clip of a documentary about it on YouTube. Two months later, the clip had garnered tens of millions of hits; and within a year, eight editions of the book had been published, including an enhanced digital book containing archived material, music and text.

Michel underscored just how much the digital world has converged publishing platforms when she pointed out how her job as an agent has changed.

“We’re not in the business of selling books anymore,” she said. “We’re in the business of selling writing.”

LISTEN: To a recent interview with Sony’s Steve Haber

PLAN: A trip to the next Hay Festival, this time in Segovia, Spain in September

LEARN: More about Creative and Cultural Skills of the UK

About the Author

Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu Ogunlesi was born in 1982. He is the author of a collection of poetry, Listen to the geckos singing from a balcony (Bewrite Books, 2004) and a novella, Conquest & Conviviality (Hodder Murray, 2008). In 2007 he was awarded a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg poetry prize, in 2008 the Nordic Africa Institute Guest Writer Fellowship, and in 2009 a Cadbury Visiting Fellowship by the University of Birmingham. His fiction and poetry have been published in The London Magazine, Wasafiri, Farafina, PEN Anthology of New Nigerian Writing, Litro, Brand, Orbis, Nano2ales, Stimulus Respond, Sable, Magma, Stanford’s Black Arts Quarterly and World Literature Today, among others. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.